R.I.P. to Mike Roarke, whose four seasons as a backup catcher launched a decades-long career as a coach and manager in the major and minor leagues. He died on Saturday, July 27 at the age of 88. According to his obituary, he died in his home town of West Warwick, R.I., surrounded by his family. Roarke played for the Detroit Tigers (1961-1964) before becoming a coach for the Tigers, Angels, Cubs, Cardinals, Padres and Red Sox.
Mike Roarke was born on November 8, 1930. A childhood friend of Roarke related a story of how he was caught in school with a copy of Sports Illustrated tucked inside his English textbook when he was 13. “Michael, put that away. You can’t earn a living playing ball,” the teacher said. Roarke looked at her and replied, “I fully intend to.”
Roarke was a football and baseball star for the West Warwick High School Wizards and went on to captain the football and baseball teams at Boston College as well. He was a reliable end on the football team who hardly dropped a pass, along with being a starting catcher. Roarke, a history major, won the B.C. Varsity Club trophy, an annual award given to the top student-athlete in the senior class.
The Chicago Bears drafted him after his graduation in 1952, but Roarke decided to stick with baseball over football. The Boston Braves signed him and his college teammate, Joe Morgan — the one who managed the Red Sox, not the one on the Big Red Machine. Roarke was assigned to the Evansville Braves of the Three-I League. Baseball Reference doesn’t have his 1952 stats available, but game recaps from the time showed he contributed with a few key hits.
Roarke missed the 1953 season due to military service — he spent 16 months in Austria — and returned in 1954 to play for the Jacksonville Braves of the Sally League. There, he hit .295 in 85 games and was considered one of the league’s top prospects, along with Columbia’s Frank Robinson. After that year, though, he struggled to advance. Aside from a good year in Jacksonville in 1956 when he hit .276 with 13 home runs, he he hit mostly in the .240s or lower. His 1959 season, in which he batted .227 for the Louisville Colonels, was memorable mainly because he was behind the plate for a Juan Pizarro no-hitter against Charleston on June 16. About four months later, Roarke was one of three players sent to Detroit in a trade that brought Charlie Lau and Don Lee to the Braves.
With a new team, Roarke had new opportunities to catch in the majors. He actually made the Tigers out of Spring Training in 1960, but he never saw action in a game and was sent to the minors in May when teams had to get down to the 25-man roster limit. He went to the Denver Bears and put together a pretty respectable season, slashing .255/.333/.396. It was his best season in several years. Though he turned 30 in 1961 with no major-league experience, the Tigers made him the backup catcher to Dick Brown.
“I’ve been playing ball since I got out of BC in 1952,” he said in Spring Training. “I belonged to the Braves for eight years. I’ve played for seven minor league cities, and one in Venezuela — Maracaibo. And I’m 30 years old. It’s about time I got into a big league game.”
The ’61 Detroit Tigers fought with the Yankees all season long for the AL pennant before fading late in the season. Roarke ended up as the starting catcher for a while when Brown slumped, but he hit just .223 in 86 games. He was behind the plate on an infamous September 1 game when Don Mossi lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Yankees. Moose Skowron singled in the winning run with 2 outs in the 9th inning. That game sent the Tigers into a losing streak and the Yankees on a winning streak, deciding the pennant race. Roarke went 2-for-4 that day but was picked off first base by Whitey Ford.
Roarke’s batting average dropped to .213 in 1962, though he hit a career-high 4 home runs. Even though he was a weak hitter, his defensive abilities were above average, so he was able to keep his role as backup catcher — for a while. The problem was that the Tigers had an up-and-comer named Bill Freehan in the minors, and he ended up getting a fair share of action behind the plate in 1963. Roarke hit well, with a .318 batting average and .362 on-base percentage, but he played in only 23 games. By 1964, Freehan was the starting catcher, and Roarke played in a total of 29 games, with a .232 average.
Three of his 19 hits from ’64 came in one game against the Orioles on July 12. It was Game Two of a doubleheader, so he had a rare chance to start a game. The last hit traveled about 103 feet, falling just shy of second baseman Jerry Adair’s glove and scoring two runs, as the Tigers came from behind to win 4-3. “I’m sure the pitch would have been a ball and so I held back. But I didn’t check it in time and the ball hit the end of my bat,” Roarke said.
In his four seasons in the majors, Roarke had a .230/.296/.297 slash line, with 113 hits in 194 games. He had 6 home runs and 44 RBIs. He planned to go back to Rhode Island to his offseason job of selling insurance, but instead Tigers manager Chuck Dressen hired him as a bullpen coach. One of the first things he did was fix Mickey Lolich. After getting off to a slow start, he threw two straight complete games.
“It’s that Mike Roarke — he’s been constantly after me, working on my delivery, talking to me in the clubhouse all the time. He’s the one who got me straightened out,” Lolich said. The hurler then rattled off a half-dozen mechanical flaws Roarke found, from kicking his left leg too far behind to dropping his arm too low.
“But I was gripping the ball right,” Lolich said, looking on the bright side.
For the next 30 years or so, Roarke was constantly employed as a coach, helping to straighten out pitchers. He left the Tigers after the 1966 season and was hired as the Angels’ bullpen coach.He rejoined the Tigers in 1970 as a pitching coach in a difficult role. Not only was he replacing popular coach Johnny Sain, but he also started the season without 24-game winner Denny McLain, who was suspended by the commissioner. The Tigers’ pitching was awful, and Roarke only lasted a year on the job, but there were considerable extenuating circumstances.
Roarke managed in the minor leagues from 1971-75 for the Tigers, Brewers and Cubs organizations. He returned to the majors to serve as pitching coach for the Cubs from 1978-80 before deciding to spend more time closer to home. He took a job as the pitching instructor for the Pawtucket Red Sox, which was managed by his old Boston College teammate Joe Morgan.
Roarke did freelance for the Cardinals in one notable case. In 1983, he was called to St. Louis to help straighten our Bruce Sutter. The two had developed a good relationship while Roarke was coaching for the Cubs, and when Sutter’s ERA soared to nearly 5.00, the Cardinals brought Roarke in for a special session.
“Mike is an old friend of mine from the minors,” said St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog. “He knows better than anyone how to get Bruce back on the right track.”
“He’s not only my pitching coach, but he’s my friend,” Sutter said. “Even though he’s not with me every day, he opens his paper and reads the box scores and sees that I’ve gotten ripped. When that happens four or five times in a row, he’s waiting for the phone to ring.”
Sutter didn’t always call for help, of course. When the reliever was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, Roarke was one of the first people he called, so he could thank his old coach.
His sessions with Sutter were so successful that the Cardinals named him pitching coach for the 1984 season, and he held the position through 1990. He also coached for the Padres and Red Sox. He was let go by the Sox, along with the rest of the coaching staff, when manager Butch Hobson was fired after the 1994 season. That was his last coaching role.
Fun fact: While Roarke was a pitching coach for the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981, he got credit for being the winning manager of a 33-inning game. It started on April 19 and had to be finished on June 23 when the International League commissioner personally suspended the game. Manager Morgan was ejected from the game in the 22nd inning, so Roarke took over for the final 11 innings. The game took 8 hours and 25 minutes to play and ended when Dave Koza singled home Marty Barrett with the winning run.